Media musings: stressing Private Shepard

How Christopher Nolan uses an auditory illusion to intensify his films

Music+eternally+increases+along+with+the+action+in+Dunkirk

Laurea Wanner

Music eternally increases along with the action in “Dunkirk”

Shaun Underwood , Staff Writer

The police, eerily anticipating the final battle, march up the mauled streets of Gotham. An army of Bane’s creation awaits the police. A silent, timeless moment divides the forces of good and evil until … BOOM! The music picks up. The adrenaline kicks in. Cops and criminals clobber one another. The music picks up even more. Batman flies through the brawl, battling Bane to the brink. The music picks up even more! The music picks up even more?!

In this scene from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” the music steadily ascends for what feels like an eternity. However, that’s not actually the case. Instead, composer Hans Zimmer scripts a musical pattern called the Shepard tone to trick the human brain into thinking that the music infinitely escalates. 

The Shepard tone is most prevalent in Nolan’s war film “Dunkirk,” which follows a group of soldiers stranded on the Dunkirk beaches as they fight and flee from an enemy they have no hope of defeating. By using the Shepard tone in “Dunkirk,” Zimmer endlessly increases suspense while manipulating that suspense to immerse viewers in the pressure of war. 

The Shepard tone occurs when many pitches, each an octave apart, play over each other. When one note reaches the peak pitch, the pattern returns to the lowest pitch and repeats, and the eternal loop of ascension is born. As the pitch reaches a higher and higher frequency, we stop hearing the sound before the next pitch comes swinging in to replace it, leaving no time for our brains to keep up.  

Roger Shepard, who created the Shepard tone in 1964, notes how, like Escher’s never-ending staircase or the stripes of a barber’s pole, the tone never stops. It just keeps going.  

Zimmer wields the Shepard tone during “Dunkirk”’s titular scene, when the soldiers’ boat capsizes, oil spills everywhere, and the German pilot circles above the ocean-trapped troopers. Cue the music! The rising tones overlap and the suspense kicks in. As the music ascends, our brains believe that the action is intensifying, like building apprehension before a jump-scare in a horror movie. 

Zimmer’s use of the Shepard tone distinguishes “Dunkirk” from other war films like “1917,” “Saving Private Ryan” or “Hacksaw Ridge.” All war films attempt to display war’s damaging effects on humans, but the Shepard tone allows “Dunkirk” to immerse viewers in the soldiers’ experiences and feel their stress more fully. A war film might never completely convey the trauma soldiers endure, but Zimmer’s clever inclusion of the Shepard tone brings audiences one step closer to a more authentic and climactic viewing experience.

Besides Christopher Nolan films — trust me, Hans Zimmer adds at least one Shepard tone into pretty much every movie Nolan makes — the Shepard tone pops up in every type of media. So the next time you’re jamming to Queen or racing on Mario Kart, look out for that insidious suspense-stacker: the Shepard tone.

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